Sci-Fi: Future Shock Proofing

Can science fiction make the world a better place?

As I’ve discussed before, SF can have a demonstrable impact on the real world in terms of inspiring scientists to develop new technologies. But part of that previous discussion included the potential costs and negative effects of that technology—something SF lit explores in often frightening detail.

Damien G Walter has written a thoughtful and compelling piece for The Ascender Magazine on the way SF serves as a forum for building a better world through imaginative explorations, as, in his words: “…imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

In the overview to The Ascender article on his blog, Mr. Walters describes the two basic audiences for SF as liberal and conservative constituencies, each approaching reading SF with different aims: world-building and escapism, respectively.*

“The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet.”

It’s this social futurism that is often neglected when discussing the predictive aspects of SF writing. Mr. Walters cites excellent examples of progressive SF writers who address sociopolitical issues directly, such as Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is still one of the benchmarks for literature about gender and The Dispossessed made me seriously consider for the first time if an anarchist state might be possible. But there are just as many wacky libertarian-conservative imagined futures like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistressline marriage anyone?

But I think Mr. Walters really gets at the core of an important idea when he writes about SF as the literature of the imagination:

“The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention.”

The individual quirks of a given vision of the future are less important than the act of trying to imagine one. Gay marriage seems downright prosaic once you’ve spent time inhabiting an imaginary line marriage. Star Trek showed the first interracial kiss on television. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass made us confront the possibility of ecological disaster as early as 1956. Beyond predicting the next cool gadget, SF has long helped those of us who embrace the genre adapt to the ever increasing pace of technological and social evolution.

One of the principle benefits of reading a lot of SF is the protection it affords the reader from future shock. If you have imagined—with the help of a good writer—a wide range of possible futures, you’re less likely to be alarmed by new technologies or new social norms.

Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End is a great example of near future world-building that examines both the practical and social impacts of emerging technologies. Reading the novel, I shuddered at the (largely metaphoric) book scanning device that devoured whole libraries; felt pangs of sympathy for a character struggling with the displacing effects of anti-aging tech (a possible social cost of looking younger that had never occurred to me before), and vicariously reveled in the potential applications of wearable computing.

Despite the potential downsides of Vinge’s future, I’d be ready for it tomorrow. Bring on the wearable computing and constantly wired life, I’m ready to Google everything I see.

Can SF make the world a better place? The cumulative effect of all these imagined futures on the real world is probably equally dark as light—as many drugged-out cyber terrorists as social progressives might have been inspired by a given piece of SF. But change is indeed the only constant and SF is the only literature that has ever fully engaged with change at all levels.

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*Although I would argue that the line he draws between these two goals is blurry at best, isn’t world-building just a different kind of escapism? —maybe a more progressive kind, but still.

Precision of Naming: Science Fiction, SF or Sci-Fi?

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

As critic and writer Damien Walter rightly notes in a post at The Guardian“If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.”

Mr. Walter provides a succinct and entertaining glossary of terms for the main genres of writing. I laughed out loud when I got to his definition of one of my preferred abbreviations, SF:

“Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means ‘science fiction’ before correcting people when they say, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ which tends to annoy both parties.”

I grew up reading science fiction, or whatever, in the late 70s and early 80s—in the wake of Star Wars, sure—but also in the afterglow of the New Wave of late 60s early 70s SF. (I’ve obviously drifted into another annoying subgeneric term, but stay with me.) The New Wave was a movement characterized by rampant and occasionally ill-advised experimentation. The term “speculative fiction” arose out of that movement and is still a favourite of many good writers and critics; and is yet another entertaining entry in Mr. Walter’s glossary.

The New Wave writers—like Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin—disdained the use of the term sci-fi because Forry‘s pet name cheerfully included all the b-movie cultural detritus from which they sought to distance their art.

And despite my love of b-movies and related schlock, I read so much Ellison et al as a young man that I’ve never been able to fully embrace the name sci-fi. Which is unfortunate, as sci-fi has stuck with the majority of the public at large. That I would choose to cling to an abbreviation like SF at the risk of being misunderstood perhaps says more about my character than I’d care to examine.

Further, the choice of the name Albino Books speaks to my love of the work of Moorcock, who is one of the kings of cross-genre experimentation, where these labels cease to be meaningful.

In my last post I brought up William Hope Hodgson, who wrote for pulp magazines long before the term science fiction was invented and before the semi-rigid marketing categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery became commonplace in bookstores. The recent emergence of the term New Weird is partially a reaction to the restrictions of these current genre definitions. Writers like my hero China Miéville, equally inspired by Hodgson, Lovecraft, The Island of Dr Moreau and Advanced D&D, have returned to a Weird Tales-style soup of unexpected genre tropes—tales of the fantastic and unusual.

I contend that the the impulse to mix these seemingly disparate elements is really the natural order.

I sympathize with the dogmatic loyalty many writers feel towards hard science fiction—or, yikes, even Mundane SF—the grounding in real science that would seem to provide a firmer foundation to build a story upon. But China Miéville is the perfect example of a writer comfortable in moving freely from genre to genre—weird tale, fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction and back again—with no loss of purpose or quality. The reason for this is his ability to fashion a new, airtight internal logic in each successive story. He establishes rules for each new world he plays in, then rarely or never breaks those rules. No matter how weird, or even transgressive, a given story element may seem in some of China’s work, they all flow together in sympathetic fictional frameworks—nothing seems completely out of place, even the truly weird.

There’s also some melancholy to be found in the way these adherents to separate splinter factions of fantastic storytelling often react to each other with open hostility. Don’t get your urban, romantic,  paranormal fantasy in my post-colonial, slip-stream, steampunk, science fiction—our imaginary nerd seems to say—you just don’t get it. As fans and practitioners of sci-fi, aren’t we already marginalized enough without turning on our brothers and sisters?

I understand the impulse that leads so many to expend so much energy on defining themselves and what they do—I’m even a sucker for a good manifesto—but isn’t the act of defining an art the first step towards codifying that art?

And isn’t codifying any art an inherently reductive act?